Life As A River
“Bam, crash!” bizarre noises rip through the brush. Instinctively I reach for the raft, the wilderness’ perfect getaway car, ready to launch it back into the current and the relative safety of the river. Having not seen another human for days, and knowing that we are 50 miles from the nearest permanent structure, I assume that whatever is bearing down on us has four legs and the ability to either chomp us or stomp us into the ground. But something is odd about these sounds emanating from the forest.
Finally I hear it, the unmistakable sound of a reciprocating engine struggling to honor what its driver is asking it to do: go really fast. Before any of us have time to speculate as to who is out here in the Alaskan wilderness, 50 miles from the nearest road, barreling down to the riverbank on what can only be described as a rustic hiking trail, the 6-wheeled ATV emerges from the undergrowth.
“Hey guys,” the scruffy young man in the passenger seat says, amiably enough.
I let down my guard a little, although often times people you stumble across in the Alaskan wilds aren’t terribly happy to run into strangers. This pair seems to be different.
“How’s the water been?” the driver asks. “You’re the first people we’ve seen for over a month.”
“Yeah,” the passenger adds, “the river has been so high that nobody can get down. We even saw a helicopter fly in a few miles upriver to rescue an entire guided group. I guess they scared the hell out of themselves.”
We knew about the high water, we had been tracking the levels all month and wondering if we were going to have to cancel our trip too. Thankfully the levels had gone down in time for us and the lethal hydraulics that forced the professionals to quit had settled down to the relatively calm Class III water that we were prepared for.
For us, it’s turning out perfectly. The fly-in to Chelatna Lake was amazing, the fishing has been outstanding, and although we can see spawned-out sockeye carcasses lodged six feet up in the trees that belie a much higher water level earlier in the month, the fear-factor for us has been fairly low.
We tell our grungy greeting committee that we just plan on pitching our tents for the night, and they roar off into the woods. But just when we think we have reclaimed our peaceful riverside experience, they return with firewood and offer to build us a fire, clearly an invitation to hang out some more.
After setting up camp and having some dinner, we relax with our new friends. We find out that they’ve been out here for a few months felling trees for a remote fishing cabin that will be built up the hill. By the way they are acting, it’s pretty clear that they have had enough of each other and are just happy to be talking to anyone else besides each other.
Rafters and kayakers know even better than fishermen the old adage that you never step in the same river twice. The flow of water constantly changes the riverbed; old rocks are replaced with new, channels are dug, and holes are filled in. Where once there was a mellow riffle, add a few thousand cubic feet of water and now you’ve got a roiling chute that is better scouted at best and lined at worst. Even the direction and shape of the river is in perpetual change, although because it usually happens so slowly we just don’t notice.
However when a major event happens, we are reminded of its ever-changing nature. These poor guys have had an extreme example. This once benign river that brought rafters and fisherman by every few days became a raging torrent that trapped them alone in the wilderness for a month. Rain, glacial melt-off, winter snow levels, and even the collapse of natural dams can cause drastic change. Yet maybe even more important is how those changes affect everything around it.
Often in my own life as I strive to change things up, find new ways of doing things, explore novel ideas, I don’t always recognize the impact I’m having on those around me. Especially when it’s the result of a major life-event and it’s all I can do to keep my raft right-side up, it’s easy to leave loved ones behind. It’s easy to strand some of the people that have been so faithful to me on my journey without at least letting them know how important they have been in my life.
New is exciting, but change is hard: especially for those that aren’t going along. Just like a river that splits into different braids and channels, we are all meandering through our lives, just trying to make the best decisions we can at each bend. Maybe the best thing we can do for each other is offer each other grace and the freedom to head on down river and pursue the life that we yearn for.
In some ways we are just like that water. We are formed in heaven, under the watchful eye of God: formed individually, unlike any other before us or anyone after. We are sketched, molded, shaped, and delicately etched as a snowflake in God's unfathomable imagination. Then, when it is time and our clouds have drifted into the precise location, when the dewpoint and temperature are just right, then God releases us to float down to earth. We float down, gently landing on our glacier, beginning our journey in life.
The movement of a glacier seems incredibly slow, yet down we go, ever closer to the edge. Along the way we are molded, for nothing matches the sheer power of a mountain of ice on the move. We are ground, chiseled, melted and refrozen. Finally one day it is our turn to break free. It is our turn to escape from the massive embrace of the glacier, our turn to be released into the moving water that flows away from the mountain and toward the sea.
And there we are: dripping, dribbling, babbling, rolling, and raging through the mountainside. We move rocks and boulders, we collide with banks and trees, we provide oxygen and life to some, and destruction and drowning to others. Sometimes we are the calm stretch of laughter and joy and sometimes we are the pounding Class V canyon determined to wreak havoc on anything in our way. Yet all the while we must obey the forces that God has put in our lives, the gravity that draws us, the tidal forces that pull on us, and eventually we will reach the sea and the evaporation that will one day take us back up to heaven.
It’s no wonder that we are mesmerized by flowing water. Something deep down inside reminds us, something in our soul feels it: we just know.